Night Travellers


182 pages
ISBN 0-88801-072-9





Reviewed by P.J. Kemp

P.J. Kemp was a journalist living in Brigham, Quebec.


Manitoban Sandra Birdsell has collected 13 of her short stories chronicling some of the events in the fictional Lafreniere family. They are very ordinary people, the kind one is likely to meet while shopping, whose kids go to the same school as one’s own. That isn’t to say, however, that ordinary people are also dull people, and Birdsell very movingly describes the drama and struggle of such people to realize some happiness or, at the very least, peace, in their lives.

In the two opening stories the father, Maurice Lafreniere, distinguishes himself as a sort of local hero, a prophet dubbed Old Man River, when he accurately predicts the devastating effects of the spring flooding. He longs to be completely socially accepted by the community, and he has already achieved much in that direction, having established a successful barbering business and maintaining an apparently stable family. But under his veneer of respectability is a nagging sense of guilt over his abandonment of his mother’s people — Indians who now feel he has betrayed them in the worst way. Maurice, torn between two worlds, in neither of which he feels very comfortable, all his life listens to the Indian voices — but practices the white man’s “civility.” Toward the end, he listens more closely and follows, finally finding his own peace.

In between, the mother and three of the daughters tread their own tortuous paths through life, searching for love and finding only momentary passion, aching to express their individuality and independence, but usually settling instead for compromises that ensure only a bitter and corrosive kind of peace.

In all their stories there is a compelling and often bewildering drive to sort out just who they are, how their various heritages affect their present lives, how their own pasts and persistent memories tend to dictate future decisions — and how distressingly often paths are taken without any decision having been made.

However unremittingly sad and fateful the stories are, Birdsell is never melodramatic, and she uses a light and sympathetic hand in painting the Lafrenieres’ lives; a fine, subtle, mystical perception refreshes and gives quiet hope to each tale. Only in the last story does creeping sentimentality and predictability mar an otherwise sensitive, excellent collection.


Birdsell, Sandra, “Night Travellers,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,